Stuffed Photos

– Posted in: Garden Photography

I have truly made it. Amy, at Garden Rant called me out, first admiring my Grasses book as garden porn, then sticking it to me: “Hey: Do people really stick cut flowers into their borders for photo shoots to make them look like there’s more in bloom? Come on, you can tell us”

Amy; c’mon, you KNOW this happens. You have seen the glossy garden magazines at the checkout aisle. You are a gardener yourself. You don’t actually believe those gardens are real ?!  I began my career as a commercial photographer – that’s where I learned the phrase “The camera always lies”. It is the commercial photographer’s job to create a fantasy. That mentality carries over to many commercial garden photo shoots which are styled to “perfection” – whatever THAT is. Certainly most garden magazines do not have the budget to style a garden for a photo shoot, but it happens more than the public realizes.

I genuinely and honestly try to avoid styling gardens, knowing, as a gardener myself, it creates unrealistic expectations for gardeners. I do rake, sweep, and deadhead a garden I am working in, but truly, now well into this career, I prefer real gardens to staged ones – even for the sake of photos. I won’t rant about that again, or smirk about the non-gardeners who want a trophy garden that does not exist.

A real part of the reason I want to blog is to help others avoid the temptation to make their gardens “picture perfect”. There are times when even the most modest garden is photo ready in the gardener’s eyes, indeed that is what each of us hopes for, but the “picture perfect” garden for publication purposes is either styled to get that way, or the product of an extraordinary amount of maintenance, planning, and good timing.

Please, folks, don’t garden in hopes to get it into publication. Those gardens are rare. So, have I ever stepped over the line, stuffed a garden for photo purposes?

garden bench with wildflowers

I constructed this photo in my back yard for a chapter-opening photo in a wildflower book. On the lawn, in front of a shrub border, I laid down some heavy plastic, poured some pea gravel and moved a garden bench to pretend there is a pathway. All the color comes from 5 gallon nursery plants put side by side on the lawn next to the bench.

Does this lie help or hinder garden communication ? On the plus side it should encourage gardeners to recognize wildflowers as garden plants, but on the negative side, these are not really wildflowers (certainly not native to my California garden) and they are not actually growing in the garden.

xeriscape garden under oaks

This photo is even more of a construct for a worthy cause. I spent all day setting up this photo. This California woodland has no understory plants except for the ones I placed. I used literally a dumptruck full of Nandina, Grevillea, and ferns to create a scene that is designed to promote low water, xeriscape gardening under native oaks. Perhaps I could have scouted around to find an existing garden, but it was easier, from a commercial photography sense, to simply create it.

Does this lie help or hinder garden communication ? On the plus side it promotes an appropriate, regional gardening style, but on the negative side it is a garden no one can do – it is lusher than such a garden would actually look and the red Nandina is never this bright in shady gardens.

The photos above are fairly extreme examples of how, rightly or wrongly, I have stuffed photos to create a publication quality photo. Below is a more common trick to make a plant portrait a better photo than the subject really is.

This end-of-the-season rose has one nice cluster as a potential subject, but when I looked through the viewfinder I could not quite find the composition that was as dramatic as I wanted:

By simply cutting and moving a few flowers into the background I get a much stronger, ready-for-publication photo. A stuffed photo perhaps, a bit of a lie I suppose, but one that could very well look like a summer cluster rather than an autumn one:

Who would believe this is November anyway??

Saxon Holt

Saxon Holt is the owner of PhotoBotanic, a garden picture resource for photographs, workshops, and garden photography stories. A landscape photographer and award winning photojournalist with more than 20 garden books, he lives and gardens in Northern California.

Saxon Holt

Latest posts by Saxon Holt (see all)

GET UPDATES
Sign up and receive our latest garden inspiration straight to your inbox.
Next Post:

Comments on this entry are closed.

Michelle Derviss November 3, 2007, 9:09 pm

Saxon,
You really ought to give me a call before spending all that time fluffing and stuffing a garden for a photo shoot.
With 20 years of garden making in Marin , Sonoma and Napa I think I can find a garden for you that has been well tended and will provide you with great photo content for your specific assignment.
Michelle Derviss

Carol November 3, 2007, 10:57 pm

Very interesting, very helpful to know that it is TRUE, as suspected, some garden photos are staged. It reminds me of going to the garden shows in February and March and seeing flowers all forced to bloom at the same time, that would never be blooming together in ‘real life’.

Lisa at Greenbow November 4, 2007, 8:58 am

Having been gardening for many years I knew that some of the photos had to be stuffed or staged. I still like to look at pretty pictures of gardens. They give me “visions” for my garden.

Angela Pratt November 4, 2007, 9:34 am

Haven’t I seen that oak woodland garden photo in Sunset? It’s staged?!!! Wow, am I naive. Well, no longer.

I agree with Michelle that the wine country offers many picture-perfect gardens needing no fluffing. Or, rather, they are kept fluffy year-round and no expense is spared.

I’ve also heard that most gardens are photographed in April because that’s when they look best. Unless you’re looking for autumn or winter interest, or summer veggies, I tend to agree.

April is the first month when everything’s greening up, there’s a lot of color, and plants haven’t had a chance to get crispy from heat or maturity or neglect. Light tends to be soft as well. It’s softer now too, in Autumn. Spring and Autumn… our most photogenic seasons?

Mr. McGregor's Daughter November 4, 2007, 10:34 am

How the scales fall from my eyes! I have been so naive. It’s a good thing I have never felt the need to try to live up to garden mag or book photos. I’ve always known that the camera lies, as the mere act of framing a shot can make a view look better than a different angle or a wider shot. I just never suspected such crass artifice in photos of the “natural” world. I think it is wrong to stage a garden such as the xeriscape example. People who put in those plants would expect their garden to appear as the photo, & then might become disenchanted with the whole idea when the garden doesn’t perform up to expectations. This type of staging does more harm than good. The photo for the book is more excusable. It would be informative & interesting to note somewhere in the book how the shot was accomplished. I found your explanation most entertaining. The photo of the individual flower is perfectly acceptable if the plant is presented in a way that it could actually grow.

Benjamin November 5, 2007, 12:55 am

I’ve been naive too, and I don’t usually expect the best from people–but I do of plants. Just another way we harm our planet and our relationship with it. (I may be a fatalist, just may be.) Still, I’ll look at the pretty pictures and enjoy them on at least the surface level, as I do those magazine covers in the grocery store checkout line.

Saxon Holt November 6, 2007, 12:55 pm

I am feeling a bit misunderstood. Mr. McGregor’s daughter sees “crass artifice”. Benjamin sees “another way we harm our planet” in the garden photographer’s stuffing a scene with plants before it is photographed. Golly, I didn’t mean to to imply this is done very often but that it is done for specific commercial purpose. While I hope my comments on this subject will lead the readership to question ALL photos they see, from a glory shot of fruit to the embarrasing photo of a grimacing politician, I don’t want to work myself out of favor as a garden photographer. Personally, and especially these days as I have become more sophisticed a gardener myself, I resist styling the gardens I photograph knowing this could skew the idea of what a garden is expected to be.

On the other hand when a commercial client comes dangling money to do it “their way”, I look at my bills and happily stuff a photo. At least this column is not the confessions of a food photographer….

fsorin November 7, 2007, 2:07 pm

Saxon,

I certainly applaud your honesty and appreciate your desire to faciliate earnest gardeners to discover what’s below the surface when it comes to photographing gardens. And as you said, some: not all.
As a matter of fact, in this month’s (January 2008) The English Garden magazine,there is a layout of a Gloucestershire garden on page 45 with which I fell in. If you can get your hands on it, I’d like for you to tell me if the photos have been doctored at all and if so how. Thanks! Fran

Rosemarie November 8, 2007, 12:27 am

I don’t know why I am shocked, but I am. Kind of like finding out the Easter bunny is your mom; it shouldn’t be a shocker but it’s still disappointing. I guess I’ll just look at garden photos like I look at the movie stars: airbrushing can make anyone look gorgeous.

Mr. McGregor's Daughter November 8, 2007, 12:32 pm

I didn’t mean to offend Saxon Holt or imply that garden photographers in general are doing anything wrong. My strong language was meant merely to show my ignorance of the practice, as I (foolishly) expected garden photographs to be natural. I know all about the tricks of commercial photography (e.g., using mashed potatoes as a stand-in for icecream). I should have suspected that the same type of thing is done in garden photographs. The amount of artifice and the amount of disclosure should depend on the purpose of the photograph. An ad to sell something? Artifice is fine. An educational article to inform and influence gardeners and homeowners? Needs to be more realistic. My apologies, Saxon Holt, and thank you for enlightening me and the gardening public.